The life of a sincere environmentalist is one of perpetually hoping and working to avoid the opportunity to say “I told you so”. The biggest successes are marked by nothing notable happening in the world, other than the continued thriving of life that all of us have known for our whole lives. If we had moved off of fossil fuels in time to prevent catastrophic warming, we would be facing a much happier, healthier, and less bloody future, in which some people would undoubtedly use the stable climate as a reason why the actions that kept it stable were unnecessary. That would have been nice.
I would have like to live in a world where climate change, like Y2K, was a disaster averted by hard work, so a lot of people thought there wasn’t potential for disaster in the first place.
Too bad, I guess.
There is one small rhetorical benefit to being past the point of no return, when it comes to a stable climate, and that is that regardless of your politics, the sea really is rising, and that’s going to be more obvious and more expensive every year. Never, ever let anyone forget that this could have been avoided, but at this point, what matters is the tasks at hand. Seas are rising, so how are we going to deal with that?
The most common proposal I’ve heard over the years is seawalls – if we’re expecting a couple feet of sea level rise, then we just build a wall, and carry on with life. This always frustrates me, because it’s basically a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the very real danger that sea levels won’t stop rising at just a couple feet.
Well, now it won’t stop, and so now we’re seeing plans that actually try to come to terms with the scale of what’s happening to our planet.
Building a wall, when we don’t know how much sea levels are going to rise, or how fast, or what kind of storm surges we’re going to see, is not a real solution.
So rather than spending vast amounts of money on allowing their city to exist as if the sea wasn’t rising, Boston is taking a tip from the Netherlands, and looking into a new kind of city designed to let people live with sea level rise, and to pull the city back from the water’s edge a bit.
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, a Democrat, announced the city would be scrapping the idea of a sea wall in favor of, among other things, a system of waterfront parks and elevation of some flood-prone areas. The city will add 67 new acres of green space along the water and restore 122 tidal acres.
The idea is to give people access to the shoreline when the weather is nice, but when the parks get flooded — well, it’s not that big of a deal.
While Boston needs to do a lot better when it comes to economic and environmental justice, this is a big step toward a more just future. The horrors wrought on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina underscore a simple fact – walls that allow building below sea level mean gambling with human lives, and those most at risk will always be those with the least political power, and the fewest resources to help them withstand the losses of a failed levee or seawall. This plan avoids the creation of neighborhoods that will flood should the walls fail, whether by accident or by design.
As always, this isn’t the only way to solve the problem of sea level rise, but I think it’s a big step in the direction of a better philosophy of how to interact with the planet we live on. It’s the kind of change we’re going to need if we’re to survive what’s coming.
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